The vast majority of the acres designated for renewable energy under the draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan wouldn’t actually be developed.
But some environmental groups question whether the desert is being asked to carry too heavy a burden.
For the four agencies that worked on the plan – the California Energy Commission, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the federal Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – the goal was to give energy companies ample breathing room to develop at least 20,000 megawatts of renewable energy in California’s deserts.
The agencies calculated that number after reviewing the state’s long-term climate goals, projections of future electricity demand, and the potential for greenhouse gas reductions from energy efficiency and distributed renewable resources, like rooftop solar.
They found that between 17,000 and 19,000 megawatts of renewable energy will probably be needed from the desert, then rounded up to 20,000 megawatts to be safe.
But that assumption – which underlies the entirety of the 8,000-page draft – is highly controversial.
Regulators, critics say, have underestimated the amount of renewable energy that can be generated in other parts of the state, while making pessimistic assumptions about the emissions reductions that can be achieved through rooftop solar, energy efficiency and reduced demand.
Barbara Boyle, a senior representative with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, said there was “no compelling reason” for regulators to assume that 70 percent of the state’s large-scale solar photovoltaic energy must come from the desert. That kind of technology, she said, works just as well outside of the desert.
“Part of the problem is that the approach that they’re taking to what energy should be developed is leaving it up to the developers to decide, and to a lesser extent to the utilities,” Boyle said.
“If this is going to be energy planning, it makes more sense for the agencies to look at what are the kinds of energy California most needs, when does it need them, and which ones are the best ones to get from the desert.”
But while national groups like the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council have largely supported the draft plan’s goals, others activists have come out against the idea of building 20,000 megawatts of renewable energy in the desert.
Few will say outright that they’re against all large-scale renewable energy development in the desert, but they have opposed most projects.
For these activists, renewable energy poses an existential threat to the desert’s iconic landscapes and delicate ecosystems.
John Zemanek, a spokesperson for the Apple Valley-based grassroots group Alliance for Desert Preservation, said large-scale energy projects are fundamentally at odds with the quiet lifestyles sought by many desert residents.
“Without having been consulted about it, they’re looking at this master plan that says, ‘You can forget about the beauty and the pristine quality of the desert where you live,'” Zemanek said. “‘Because we are designating this area for renewable energy.'”
Supporters of the renewable energy plan have tended to throw up their hands at such arguments. Rooftop solar panels and improved energy efficiency, they say, are important – but not enough to combat climate change on their own.
“I don’t agree that we can accomplish our goals of reducing carbon emissions, and also reducing our reliance on natural gas, with simply going to rooftop and distributed generation,” said Kim Delfino, director of California programs for Defenders of Wildlife. “I think we will need some large-scale.”
That’s certainly how policymakers see it.
As for generating 20,000 megawatts of renewable energy in California’s deserts, Douglas characterized the figure not as a target but rather as “a good number to plan for in a land-use context, so that we get renewable energy development right.”
“The value of this exercise is not to have to come back in 10 or 15 years and find more development areas, or upend parts of the conservation areas, because we did the job right the first time,” Douglas said. “The (plan) is not saying we will need 20,000 megawatts – it’s saying that it’s prudent.”